Selected prose works of Percy Bysshe Shelley
The necessity of atheism -- A letter to Lord Ellenborough -- A refutation of deism -- A defence of poetry -- Essay on the literature, the arts, and the manners of the Athenians -- On life -- On a future state -- Essay on Christianity
In any selection that may be made from the prose works of Shelley with the object of illustrating the development of his thought, a marked inequality will be found in the value, literary and intellectual, of the essays included in the book; thus, in the case of the present volume, the first thing that will strike the reader's notice is the disparity between such a juvenile effort as "The Necessity of Atheism " and so finished and stately a piece of writing as "A Defence of Poetry."
A few years, in a life such as Shelley's, represent a great advance. One feature, however, all the prose essays have in common; they are valuable as throwing light, as furnishing an authentic commentary, on the meaning of the poems. For Shelley's poetry — whatever opinion, real or pretended, Matthew Arnold may have expressed to the contrary — is of much more importance than his prose, as being the supreme vehicle of his thought; and it is certain that not only the beauty of his verse, but the significance of the message embodied in it, will be more fully realised as time goes on.
For this reason, the prose writings also will be studied with the increasing refutation of Deism," published in 1814, was that there is no middle course between accepting revealed religion and disbelieving in the existence of a deity — another way of stating the necessity of atheism. Shelley resembled Blake in the contrast of feeling with which he regarded the Christian religion and its founder. For the human character of Christ, he could feel the deepest veneration, as may be seen not only from the "Essay on Christianity," but from the "Letter to Lord Ellenborough " (1812), and also from the notes to "Hellas " and passages in that poem and in " Prometheus Unbound "; but he held that the spirit of established Christianity was wholly out of harmony with that of Christ and that similarity to Christ was one of the qualities most detested by the modern Christian.
The dogmas of the Christian faith were always repudiated by him, and there is no warrant whatever in his writings for the strange pretension that, had he lived longer, his objections to Christianity might in some way have been overcome. Apart from its inherent interest, the "Essay en Christianity," albeit fragmentary in parts, is the most- important of all Shelley's prose writings next to "A Defence of Poetry "; and in view of its maturity of style, and the great beauty of some of its passages, it may be conjectured that it was written at a date considerably later than that usually assigned to it, viz. the year 1815. Shelley's highest mark as a prose writer was attained in his "Defence of Poetry," written in Italy in 1821, almost at the close of his life, when his powers were at their full. If the early essays and pamphlets are remarkable rather for vigour and logical force than for real insight and feeling, and if their literary style was affected, perhaps unavoidably, by the polemical nature of the subjects with which they dealt, no such faults can be alleged against "A Defence of Poetry," where the train of thought is as profound as the language is majestic.
The essay is a worthy vindication not only of poetry in general but of the function of the poet-prophet, the class of singer to which Shelley himself so unmistakably belongs. In conclusion, it may be said that Shelley's prose, if not great in itself, is the prose of a great poet, for which reason it possesses an interest that is not likely to fail. It is the key to the right understanding of his intellect, as his poetry is the highest expression of his genius.
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